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(New York) – Laos should release Hmong refugee protest leaders who have been incarcerated after being secretly deported from Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today. The Lao government is detaining several Hmong asylum seekers whom Thai authorities deported earlier this year.

“The Lao government is notorious for treating deported Hmong harshly upon their return,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. “By imprisoning these Hmong deportees, Lao authorities confirm the fear many Hmong asylum seekers and refugees have expressed of being persecuted if returned to their native country.”

On June 20, 2008, more than 5,000 of the 8,000 Hmong camp residents marched out of Huay Nam Khao refugee camp in Phetchabun province, Thailand to protest a wave of arrests and deportations of Hmong asylum seekers and refugees. Thai military and paramilitary forces stopped the march three miles from the camp and held the Hmong protesters, including many children, overnight without food or drink. By the end of the second day, Thai authorities had arrested 837 Hmong asylum seekers and refugees and forcibly returned them to Laos the next day.

After convincing the protest leaders to call off their demonstration, Thai paramilitary forces surrounded the protesters with barbed wire and forced them into pick-up trucks, according to several witnesses. The Thai authorities moved eight demonstration leaders and some of their family members to an undisclosed location. They have been unable to communicate with their families since, and their whereabouts remain unknown.

Witnesses recently confirmed to Human Rights Watch that Lao authorities held at least some of the leaders in a prison in southern Laos for more than three months before finally releasing them. According to these witnesses, those leaders looked malnourished. Their treatment by Lao authorities and conditions of detention remain to be determined. The whereabouts of the remaining leaders – Chia Yang, Phia Lee, Nyia Ma Vue, Phaya Vue, and Xai Toua Yang – is still unknown.

Since November 2005, the Thai government has sent 1,580 Hmong asylum seekers and refugees back to Laos. According to a July 1, 2008 statement by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, these were all voluntary returns of economic migrants. However, Thai authorities have prevented the international community from conducting a legitimate screening of Hmong asylum seekers, some of whom show scars from bullet wounds suffered during Lao military operations. While Thai authorities have screened the Hmong asylum seekers, they deport even those who would typically qualify as refugees.

“Thailand’s forcible, secret return of Hmong refugee camp protest leaders to Laos is a clear violation of international refugee law,” said Frelick. “And, as long as both Laos and Thailand deny the UN High Commissioner for Refugees access to the Hmong, these so-called voluntary returns cannot be believed to be truly voluntary.”

Lao arbitrary arrests and mistreatment of Hmong deportees come amidst both an ongoing series of attacks on Hmong communities in Laos and an effort by the Lao government to showcase their generous and benevolent welcome of Hmong asylum seekers returned to their home country. Lao authorities have invited media coverage of staged returns of Hmong deportees and then posted photographs of these events on the internet. In early September 2008, the Lao high military command invited Thai government and military officials and Thai and Lao media to visit a Hmong relocation site in Pha Lak. At the same time, Lao security forces arrested 31 Hmong civilians and religious and political dissidents in the Phu Bia area of Central Laos.

“Rather than creating a photo opportunity, the Lao government needs to allow for independent international monitoring of Hmong returns from Thailand,” said Frelick.

In an August 16, 2007 statement, Lao Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy rejected the idea of independently monitored repatriation of Hmong to Laos. Likewise, Thailand has denied all requests by representatives of foreign governments, UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and journalists to observe any of the six mass repatriations of Hmong asylum seekers since 2007. While Thai military officials invited a group of foreign diplomats on July 3, 2008 to visit close to 300 Hmong waiting in detention to be deported, the visit was monitored by Thai security forces, making confidential discussion between Hmong asylum seekers and the diplomats impossible.

Witnesses of some Thai deportations of Hmong have reported that Thai authorities forcibly separated families as they pushed Hmong asylum seekers onto trucks. Other sources indicate many Hmong asylum seekers agreed to return to Laos only after being kept in fear and uncertainty for years by Thai authorities.

The bulk of these deportations follow the Thai and Lao governments’ signing of the Lao-Thai Committee on Border Security agreement in May 2007 that allows Thailand to send Hmong asylum seekers back to Laos upon their arrival in Thailand. Thai authorities returned 31 Hmong asylum seekers to Laos later that same month. On June 9, 2007 Thailand rounded up 163 Hmong asylum seekers and pushed them back across the border to Laos. In February 2008, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated its plan to begin repatriating approximately 200 Hmong to Laos per month. Shortly afterwards, on February 27, 2008, Thailand deported 11 Hmong asylum seekers.

In addition to the Hmong asylum seekers in the Huay Nam Khao camp, 158 UNHCR-recognized Hmong refugees remain in detention in substandard conditions in the Immigration Detention Center in Nong Khai province, Thailand. While foreign governments have offered resettlement visas to some of those detained there, Thailand refuses to allow them to leave, and the Lao government insists that these Hmong refugees pass through Laos before they can resettle.

“It is ludicrous and intimidating to require that a refugee who qualifies for resettlement should first have to return to the country where he fears persecution before being allowed to resettle,” said Frelick.

As signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Laos should not subject Hmong to arbitrary detention, torture, or other forms of inhuman and degrading abuse, all abuses which are completely prohibited under customary international law as well. Although the Thai government is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, under customary international law, it has an obligation of non-refoulement. The principle of non-refoulement protects people from being forcibly returned to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

Background information 

Laos continues to persecute Hmong communities because of a Hmong insurgency that dates back to the 1960s. In recent decades, Lao security forces have been responsible for arrests, torture, sexual abuse, and extrajudicial killings of Hmong living in areas of Laos suspected to be insurgency regions.

At best, when Hmong asylum seekers and refugees arrive in Laos after deportation, Lao authorities prohibit return to their homes and force them to stay in relocation sites or with relatives in government-friendly villages. At worst, Hmong deportees face arbitrary incarceration, sexual abuse, torture, and disappearance.

In 2005 Thai authorities deported a group of 27 Hmong youth, 21 of them female, who were all incarcerated upon their return to Laos. According to sources, some of these girls were interrogated as suspected insurgents, raped repeatedly by Lao soldiers, kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, or subjected to forced labor. After two years of detention and mistreatment, Lao authorities released the 21 girls and have only recently released five additional boys that were part of this group.

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